Friday, January 29, 2021

Comment on proposed permanent adoption of emergency amendments to 603 CMR 27.00 (Time on Learning)

Good afternoon,
I am writing to provide public comment on the permanent adoption of the emergency amendments to 603 CMR 27.00 that were passed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in the December meeting.

Please note that the following comments are made entirely in my capacity as a parent of two current Worcester Public School students and a member of the Worcester School Committee, 'though of course education policy is my professional field.

As one who spends much time and thought on public meetings and public process, I first must note the appalling way in which public process was circumvented in the passage of these regulations. Superintendents were informed Wednesday of the contents of proposed regulation that was not available until Thursday, the same day the Department sets as a deadline for sign-up for public comment at the meeting the following Tuesday. There was no consultation with any portion of the field regarding the proposed regulation or the purported need for them, no discussion with districts that have been teaching in remote or hybrid fashion, and very limited opportunity for anyone at all to review the regulations prior to their passage. As a public body that is responsible for the public good of public education, that may meet the letter of the Open Meeting Law. It certainly doesn't meet the spirit of public process.

It is also quite explicitly not in keeping with what the Commissioner promised on his assumption of his current role; he assured the field at large that he would, above all, listen. Listening has been in short supply during the pandemic, however. 

As for the changes themselves, the entire argument from the Department was that of student mental health. Specifically, the argument was that student mental health was suffering due to not being in school buildings, that this was the emergency being faced by K-12 education at this time, and that the solution to that concern was to require districts to have synchronous learning of 40 hours for those fully remote or of 35 hours for those meeting in a hybrid fashion.

Every piece of that argument, however, is incorrect.

Over 400,000 Americans are dead. One of out of every 500 Massachusetts residents is dead. Millions have or will suffer long-term health impacts after having survived coronavirus. As a result of the pandemic, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, their homes, their economic stability. 

Every single portion of that falls inequitably across our society. The rate of deaths of coronavirus among Black Americans is one in a bit over 700, compared to one in 1200 for white Americans. Black and Latino people are more likely, due to structural racism across sectors, to suffer long term health impacts, to be working in fields that put one at more risk of infection, to be living in communities that are underserved by health care, to be hit by job loss and hunger.

It is absolutely not a coincidence that these are also the same communities that are likely to have students who are learning entirely fully remotely. For much of this year, the state's nine largest communities all were fully remote. Those are of course also the same communities that have been underfunded by the foundation budget for over two decades, and that have most of the school buildings that in some cases date back to the Civil War.

Student mental health in and out of our cities was poorly supported prior to the pandemic. Wait times for in patient services regularly has stretched weeks, families may search for months to find a therapist, and far too many students go without services. That has, like nearly every other sector of our society, only grown more strained due to the pandemic. 

And naturally, student mental health, yes, has been impacted negatively over the past number of months by the pandemic--not remote schooling--by the ensuing economic catastrophe, and every other subsidiary impact of both of those. That is not at all surprising, as children live in our society and our families. What happens there happens to our children. 

Any of the above would have been and still would be areas in which your advocacy and work as a Department and as a Board are badly needed. Noting the inequitable impacts of the pandemic itself, as Vice Chair Morton did at the December meeting, calling out that as the emergency, is a voice that the state very much needs to hear. Advocating for better mental heath supports in and out of schools is very much support that the field would welcome. Ensuring that the foundation budget is funded not at a lag but at a level to meet the actual ongoing needs of students in our districts would be in keeping with the historic nature of both the funding system and the Massachusetts Board of Education. 

Instead, the requirement was to have more time on Zoom and Meet. I hope you have heard from students and teachers, as I have, of how that does not in any way improve anyone's mental health. It is, on its face, an absurd argument. That the measures districts and schools took to actively improve both learning and mental health through small groups did not count towards the total only further demonstrates how poor this argument is. it makes no logical sense. Were I still in the classroom, I would have marked this down for being an argument that is unsupported. 

Here in Worcester, we made the change as required. Were the regulations to change, I do not know that we would change back, as moving 25,000 students and 4000 staff is complicated. I will note that I know well from other districts that hybrid is by far the most difficult system to achieve. It would be ironic indeed if the Board's action in fact drove more districts towards remote learning.

I would ask that you not continue these badly supported regulations. Moreover, I would ask that you listen to the districts that are actually doing the work and advocate in ways that better support our students. 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Tracy Novick 

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